Pointing to new statistics showing that opioid overdoses claimed more than twice as many lives in 2013 as motor vehicle accidents, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday released a trove of new prescription data as he put a marker down in his effort to fight drug addiction.
Baker toured the Hope House in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood on Thursday afternoon, meeting privately with staff and patients at the addiction treatment center before outlining the initial steps his administration would take to address the addiction crisis.
The Department of Public Health published new statistics online showing that in 2013 there were 868 confirmed unintentional opioid overdose related deaths, a number officials expect to grow to 978 when all cases are closed.
The total represents a 46 percent increase from the prior year, a rate of death more than two and half times the fatality rate in Massachusetts from car accidents with 371 deaths in 2013.
Baker outlined the formation of a 16-member opioid addiction working group, which will be chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and includes Attorney General Maura Healey, to develop a statewide strategy to fight addiction.
With plans to travel to Washington D.C. on Friday for a weekend conference of the National Governors Association, Baker said he will also speak with other governors in the region, including Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, about ways the states can partner.
The governor mentioned the idea of a multi-state program to prevent individuals from going to multiple pharmacies to fill prescriptions.
Baker said his new working group, made up of mostly private sector experts, will consult with a broad range of stakeholders and hold four public events around the state before making "tangible" recommendations in May.
The first public meeting will be in Worcester on March 10.
Reps. Jeffrey Sanchez and Elizabeth Malia, both of Boston, and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr attended the press conference, and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan sought to bring attention Thursday to legislation she's filed with Rep. Christopher Walsh to limit the quantity of opioids prescribed to a patient visiting an emergency room to no more than necessary for 72 hours.
"One of the concerns in this epidemic is how freely and available these opates are and our concen is not limiting a individuals access in case of emergency or a pain situation, but we don't want peope shopping in emergency rooms," Ryan told the News Service, hoping to get her plan incorporated into the working groups recommendations.
Baker also challenged insurers, some of whom had gathered in the audience at Hope House, to develop their own set of "best practices" to manage opioid use. He credited Blue Cross Blue Shield with developing a strategy that led to a 25 percent decrease in claims for short-acting opioids like Vicodin and Percocet, and said he would seek to replicate the company's work at MassHealth and the Group Insurance Commission.
New data released shows Cape Cod as third highest concern in state
Baker, for the first time, also released county data culled from the Department of Public Health and the state's Prescription Monitoring Program on overdose deaths and opioid prescriptions.
Plymouth County showed the most cause for concern, according to the data, with 16.8 of every 1,000 patients prescribed a schedule II opioid exhibiting concerning behavior.
Plymouth County was closely trailed by Bristol County, at 15.7 per 1,000, and Barnstable County at 15.5 for every 1,000 patients giving cause for concern.
Nantucket County had the lowest rate of concern, with 1.4 patients for every 1,000 filling a prescription showing signs for concern of addiction. The administration defined concerning behavior as an individual who has received a prescription for opioid drugs from more than one prescriber and filled those prescriptions at more than one pharmacy.
While a state law signed last year by former Gov. Deval Patrick made participation in the Prescription Monitoring Program mandatory, the Baker administration reported that only 65 percent of physicians are participating with the rest expected to sign up by the fall.
Baker said he wanted to understand why the number wasn't higher, and Sudders said she was working with the Massachusetts Medical Society to encourage doctors to sign up.
Richard Pieters, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said his organization had created a task force of its own to work with physicians to combat prescription drug abuse and improve communication between doctors treating the same patient.
"That the state's top elected official and top law enforcement officer have put opioid abuse at the forefront of their agendas is good news, and physicians are ready to assist in these efforts," Pieters said.
Baker and Sudders said the administration would have 2014 data on overdose deaths ready by April, and hope to offer updates on a quarterly, and eventually monthly, basis broken down by counties and then communities.
After listening to recovering addict "James" share his story of a 20-year fight against opiate addiction, Baker said he heard about the crisis repeatedly in the homes and backyards he visited during the campaign.
He also said after speaking with addicts in treatment at Hope House that there is real benefit for those fighting addiction to be able to speak with counselors and peers who understand what they're going through.
"If you can find a way to create connection, you can find a way to create hope...," Baker said. "And I hope one of the things that comes out of all this is a lot more capacity to connect."
According to the new data, Massachusetts hospitals also handled 2,008 hospital stays and 4,570 emergency room visits for non-fatal opioid overdoses in 2013.
"The costs associated with treating opioid addiction are great, however inaction or not labeling it for what it is, which is an epidemic, is actually much greater," Sudders said. "I recognize that there are no quick fixes and that we have lots to do."
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat, commended Baker for his efforts on Thursday and vowed to refile legislation in Congress to shield family members, health professionals and first responders who administer overdose prevention treatments such as Narcan from civil liability.
The working group will be made up by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders; Attorney General Maura Healey; George Bell, of General Catalyst Partners; DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel; Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter; Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Deputy Commissioner Alan Ingram; Chelsea drug court probation officer Judy Lawler; Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald; John McGahan, of the Gavin Foundation; Hope House CEO Fred Newton; Sisters of Providence Health System Chief Medical Officer of Addiction Services Robert Roose; U.S Pain Foundation nation director of policy Cindy Steinberg; Ray Tamasi, CEO of The Gosnold; Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman; Massachusetts General Hospital substance abuse medical director Sarah Wakeman; and Colleen Labelle, program director of the State Technical Assistance Treatment Expansion Office Based Opioid Treatment with Buprenorphine program at Boston Medical Center.